by Michelle Arch
Lately I’ve struggled with the word constraint of a guest column I write. No matter how concisely I try to present my ideas, I’m routinely asked to cut between twenty and forty words from each submission. Not long ago, I spent a painful weekend pruning over 4,000 words or roughly fifteen pages from a complex essay that took over a month of previous weekends to write. All this excising of carefully crafted thought has left me increasingly puzzled by and frustrated with the stringent word count restrictions imposed by editors, literary and academic conferences, and writing competitions, and I’m wondering for the umpteenth time in my literary career…why is brevity so universally celebrated? And when exactly did less become more?
In a world of tweeting, texting, cinquains, and the widely popular flash fiction and short shorts, the art of epic articulation is no longer appreciated and extolled. As writers, we are called upon constantly to synopsize, abstract, and shorten our work. Most literary journals and conference calls for submissions set essay and story limits of 2,000 words, which not only makes comprehensive analysis or lavish storytelling impossible but also, quite frankly, cramps my style. Heck, my list of works cited typically comprises 1,000 words alone.
The length parameters of most submission opportunities are about a third of the critical essay and creative prose minimum page requirements in graduate English and Creative Writing programs. Weeks and even months of research and writing are required for a 15- to 25-page paper or narrative of “publishable” quality, which needs to be summarily condensed to a scant seven pages in order to meet the submission guidelines for publication or presentation. Any writer who has attempted to abridge fiction prose or an essay or a column to meet an editor’s space limitations knows well the instability of what remains once its structure has been so severely compromised.
I’m doing my best to adapt to the attention deficit world in which we now live and must attempt to create. As I write each blog post, column, essay, and fiction piece, I monitor the number of words at the bottom of my computer screen like a frugal taskmaster, making more efficient choices and trying not to lament all that is left unexpressed too much. But it hasn’t come easily.
In the end, with just a few hours remaining before my recent target conference submission link was closing, I read the culled fragments of my original 6,000-word Bakhtinian analysis of Oscar Wilde’s only novel and decided against submitting it. The part was simply inferior to the whole. Call me verbose; I still believe more is more.
Michelle Arch is a graduate student at Chapman University who is completing the MFA in Creative Writing degree in May 2014. She holds a Master of Arts degree in English, a Master of Business Administration degree, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and English. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Modern Language Association, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, and the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society. An excerpt from her novel in progress, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference.